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Hotly debated housing bill passes council

Measure requires fast-tracked projects to have at least 75% affordable units

A hotly debated bill to increase affordable housing requirements was approved by Maui County Council on Tuesday evening.

The 6-3 vote, with Council Members Alice Lee, Tasha Kama and Yuki Lei Sugimura dissenting, gave the green light to Bill 10, which would require that 201H fast-tracked housing projects have at least 75 percent affordable units unless a lower percentage greater than 50 percent is approved by council.

Hawaii’s 201H law, administered by the county, is an expedited path that allows exemptions from certain rules and fees for housing developments with a minimum of 50 percent affordable units.

After requests by Kama and Sugimura before the vote Tuesday, Council Member Gabe Johnson, chairman of the council’s Affordable Housing Committee, agreed to have the committee review the bill’s efficacy after 12 months.

With a high volume of testimony from the public, the bill had six hearings by the council and its Affordable Housing Committee. A recent public hearing March 31 drew nearly 50 testifiers.

“Never would I have dreamed that this piece of legislation would generate this type of discussion,” Council Member Mike Molina, who introduced the bill, said before the vote Tuesday evening.

Supporters argued the rule would require developers to bring projects with more affordable homes, which are sorely needed countywide. They said the 201H process is just one pathway for developers to move forward, and that they could seek other paths for approval. Also, the bill allows for flexibility — the county and the public can allow developments to bypass the requirement if a project warrants it.

Opponents said the measure would be a “roadblock” to development by adding challenges to an already costly and cumbersome entitlement process. They emphasized that there are more effective ways of producing additional affordable housing.

Council members said Tuesday that the public and members agreed on one thing: More affordable housing is needed. People are passionately disagreeing, though, over how to get there.

“In voting ‘no,’ it doesn’t mean we don’t support affordable housing,” said Kama, noting she has been working on affordable housing since 1983 and is “not going to stop.”

“A different direction is where we need to go.”

Lee on Tuesday said her “no” vote is based on years of experience with affordable housing, pointing to her time as housing director during Jesse Spencer’s Waikapu Gardens project.

The council chairwoman recalled Spencer investing his life savings into the multimillion-dollar project and still having to borrow $40 million on top of that. He would often complain about county departments and the cumbersome process for approvals, she said.

“You folks forget, the council is just one group, one aspect of the approval process,” she said. “They have to go through a whole gauntlet of approvals from many many places.”

She added that the county must take on more of the burden in building infrastructure, as recommended in the draft version of the county-commissioned Comprehensive Affordable Housing Plan.

“Until the county can come up with a policy and plan to provide infrastructure, this by itself is not going to work — it’s going to take other components to make it work,” Lee said.

Sugimura said her vote in opposition is because the problem is “availability and not affordability.”

“The people who have to pay for these kind of housings to happen, which is the taxpayer who ultimately has to pay for it to provide the extra funding to so that we can build the affordable units at the percentages that were given in the bill,” she said. “I mean it doesn’t come for free.”

Molina said the bill has strong support from affordable housing advocates, certain community-based organizations and individuals and families in need of affordable housing.

Also, the new bill was amended to provide flexibility in the affordable housing percentage requirement.

Some have suggested that the council should wait until the Comprehensive Affordable Housing Plan is completed.

“So, I say we can’t afford to wait, we need action now,” Molina said in a news release Tuesday evening. “I realize Bill 10 will not resolve the affordable housing crisis, but it’s another tool in our arsenal.”

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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